Recently, in the academy, some would say that it is "in" to be "out."—Diana Fuss, "Inside/Out"
At the beginning of his influential essay "Secret Subjects, Open Secrets," which purportedly takes the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield as its scholarly focus, D. A. Miller asks, "why not begin with myself?" (192). In the several, amusing, tongue-in-cheek pages of personal reflection that it takes Miller to finally decide whether or not to indeed start with himself or with the novel, he flirts with the possibility that an answer to such a question as "Davy who?" might not be Copperfield after all, as his readers would expect, but rather D(avid) Miller himself. He teases, "Why not begin by recounting the insertion of my own person into a novel that I read and reread as a child . . . the novel through which David's story—I mean the other one's—became hopelessly entangled with my own?" (192). Confessing personal identification with his scholarly material, Miller breaks down categorical distinctions between the subject and object of academic study. Here, Miller's writing, which one could describe as an otherwise rather traditionally articulated examination of the Victorian novel, playfully "outs" the personal circumstances of academic writing and thinking, thereby highlighting the arbitrary divide between public and private matters.
Of course, Miller eventually concedes to academic protocol and decides to let the details of his "seduction by David Copperfield stay a secret" (194). Yet, Miller has already admitted his readerly and notably "queer" desire for Copperfield and therefore, in effect, performed the [End Page 127] operations of the "open secret" or "the double bind of a secrecy that must always be rigorously maintained in the face of a secret that everybody already knows" (195). In other words, we know Miller has a secret, and we even know what the secret is, but we nonetheless must believe him when he tells us (four pages after the official beginning of his article) that "we begin, then, not with myself, but with the first paragraph of Dickens' text" (195). Basically, we are told to forget Miller's false start and by extension the "hopelessly entangled" moments of the public and private in his/our/all scholarly projects. In fact, Miller advises his readers that any such lingering in the personal would result in "those mortifying charges [of] sentimentality, self-indulgence, narcissism" (193). He warns, "it is bad enough to tell tales out of school, but to tell them in school—or what comes to the same, in a text wholly destined for the academy—would be intolerable" (193). Here then, I find myself going against Miller's generous advice, as it is precisely these "intolerable" moments of autobiographical reflection and personal investment within the academic text that I want to discuss further—alas, in another "text wholly destined for the academy."
At this present moment in the history of critical practices, Miller's warnings about confessional discourses within academic texts and his own autobiographical coyness, however pretended, in "Secret Subjects, Open Secrets" may seem a bit old-fashioned or outdated to many of us anyway. If Miller suggests that a purposeful forgetting or knowing ignorance characterizes authorial investments within academic writing, then there are plenty since his 1985 pronouncement who have refused to let us forget their presence in a text! Gillian Brown in fact declares, "the rhetorical mode of late twentieth-century academic criticism appears to be confessional" (103). As the ever-growing bulk of autobiographical writing by academics suggests, these days there is nothing particularly (sorry, Miller) "intolerable" about the articulation of autobiographical information within critical contexts.
Yet, it is a mistake to suggest that a banal acceptance of the personal is true for all academic writers or that there are no risks in such critical practices. I myself chose to begin with D. A. Miller not simply because I believe his scholarly performance of the "open secret" cleverly exposes the autobiographical dimensions of all academic projects, and consequently demonstrates the interconnectedness of personal and theoretical concerns, but because Miller expresses a keen awareness [End Page...